Film Reviews

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Published November 19, 2011
Film Still, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Contrary to popular belief, this is not a film in which Tilda Swinton plays Julia Gillard, with John C. Reilly as Bill Shorten. That particular episode in Australian political history was a horror movie that has not yet run its course. We Need to Talk About Kevin is less than two hours of concerted horror, as events unfold in successive flashbacks that grow increasingly ominous as we approach the present.
It the grossest understatement to describe the eponymous Kevin as a “disturbed son”, as one reads in some of the pre-publicity. Kevin is the most evil and frightening child since the cute little girl in Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed (1956).
Like pig-tailed Rhoda in that film, Kevin is a cute, intelligent kid who can turn on the charm when it suits him. By preference he turns it on for his father, who never quite sees the malevolent personality that keeps his mother in a state of high tension.
Since we view the story through the eyes of the mother, Eva, we spend most of the movie is a similar state of expectation. We know that Kevin has done something bad, so bad that his mother’s entire life has been turned upside down. She lives alone in a shabby bungalow, drives an old bomb, and is seeking menial work in an office. Whenever she ventures into the street or a shop she is terrified of running into people who react violently to her.
In flashback, life is very different. Eva is a celebrated author of travel books, her husband a successful businessman. They live in a mansion, with Kevin and his little sister. As the action telescopes from past to present, we learn how all this will be lost.
The extended flashback is a cumbersome device but Scottish director, Lynne Ramsay, keeps the action flickering feverishly across the screen. We are never allowed to settle, never given a moment to reflect. Instead, we feel the same creeping unease that Eva feels, as she struggles to understand and deal with Kevin’s behaviour. The dialogue is so sparse that we are drawn into the story mainly through images. It is not so much an adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s best-selling novel, as a cinematic reinvention.
For Ramsay this film is a huge advance on her previous feature, Morvern Callar (2002), which crawled along in a slightly aimless, dazed manner. Morvern was a drifter through life, struggling to find a raison d’etre, Eva is a completely centred person who watches everything being swept away. As her relationship with her son becomes increasingly fraught she struggles with her own feelings of guilt and self-doubt. Is it her fault? Is there something important she should have done? Is it because she has failed to give Kevin all the love he required?
Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast in the role of Eva, as she seems to look harried and desperate in even the most anodyne roles. This time she has a part that fits her lean, ethereal looks. There is rarely a moment when she is off-screen, while John C. Reilly, in a rare serious role as her husband, Franklin, is hardly more than a prop. The two other powerful presences are the young actors who play Kevin: Ezra Miller as the handsome, sinister teenager, and Jasper Newell, who is amazingly good as the young fiend-in-the-making.
In The Bad Seed, Rhoda’s badness was the subject of a degree of psychobabble, but ultimately came across as demonic. Ramsay’s achievement is to make us feel there are complex psychological factors at work in Kevin’s development, but they are never spelled out. Psychopaths may be born and not made, but we can’t help poring over Eva’s recollections looking for clues and triggers.
The family is the first battleground for all of us, although few enter the field with as much confidence and aggression as Kevin. The viewer is prompted to ask: “What would I do if I had a child like that?” It’s a nightmare scenario because we are brought up to believe in the stereotype of happy families, where Mum, Dad and the kids form one happy, loving ensemble. If our own experiences fall short of the mark it is a source of shame, but if truth be told it is the happy families that represent the greatest deviation from the norm.
We Need to Talk About Kevin teases out the dysfunctional elements that are to be found in all families. It may be an extreme case, but there will be familiarities enough to get under everyone’s skin. It suggests, shockingly, that the love between parent and child may not be the instinctive, automatic thing we believe it to be.
This is what makes the film so chilling – not the vision of a child as a potential murderer, but the idea that many tiny incidents can add up to one great, dark hole in a human personality. We need to talk about Kevin because he is a phenomenon that may be incubating in any suburban household.
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Published by the Australian Financial Review, November 19, 2011
UK/USA. Rated MA, 112 minutes.